Intifada's terrible toll leaves peace a distant dream

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The Independent Online

Palestinians marked the third anniversary of their uprising against Israeli occupation yesterday, but there was no sign either side has a strategy to end the violence that has so far killed at least 3,163 people, 502 of them children.

While Israelis were marking the Jewish New Year yesterday, Palestinians marched through the streets of Nablus and Gaza. But for both sides, the occasion was muted by fear of what is to come. Three years to the day after Ariel Sharon's visit to Haram al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount, sparked the intifada, peace seems far off.

There were autumn clouds over Jerusalem yesterday, but they were nothing to the storm clouds hanging over the peace process. The hope of early summer - when the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the then Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, stood side by side with President George Bush and committed themselves to implementing the road-map peace plan - has evaporated.

Mr Bush's road-map, which calls for a Palestinian state by 2005, has been pushed to one side with none of the steps it calls for achieved. The international diplomatic efforts now are simply to get the two sides talking again.

Abu Mazen, formally known as Mahmoud Abbas, the man hailed as a Palestinian leader the US and Israel could do business with, is not Prime Minister any more, forced out by a feud with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President.

It is as if nothing happened at Aqaba, in Jordan. Mr Arafat, who was supposed to have been sidelined, is firmly back in control of Palestinian politics - the new Palestinian Cabinet named yesterday is packed with the Arafat cronies Abu Mazen had sent packing.

At the meeting in Aqaba in June, Mr Sharon promised "a viable Palestinian state", but his government insists on continuing to build a controversial wall, cutting huge swaths out of the West Bank, despite US opposition. He promised to dismantle some illegal settlement "outposts" in the West Bank - but the few that came down have since gone back up or simply been moved to another hill by extremist settlers.

Abu Mazen promised an "end to violence and terrorism". He delivered a ceasefire from the Palestinian militant groups that held for six weeks. But Mr Sharon's government insisted that was not enough and resumed assassinations of militants, saying that if Abu Mazen would not dismantle the militant factions, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it would. Some observers said that amounted to sabotaging the ceasefire. The militants responded by resuming suicide bombings. Israel responded with an even more ferocious campaign of assassinations.

Now Israel and the Palestinians have returned to the familiar cycle of assassination following suicide bombing following assassination - as night follows day. The death toll for the past three years makes grim reading. At least 552 Israeli civilians have been killed in suicide bombings and other militant attacks, 100 of them under the age of 18; 246 Israeli soldiers have been killed on active duty.

At least 2,197 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces. Figures on how many were civilians are hard to find, but a large proportion were civilians: at least 123 were militants assassinated by the Israelis, but 84 innocent Palestinian bystanders were killed in those assassinations. And 399 of the Palestinian dead were children, 200 of them younger than 15.

Despite three years of carnage, there is no indication either side has an exit strategy. The Israeli invasion and reoccupation of West Bank cities did not work. Nor did imprisoning thousands of Palestinians. Nor has a relentless campaign of 123 assassinations stopped the suicide bombers coming. Israelis continue to die when they get on the bus to go work or school, when they go out to a restaurant or a nightclub.

And life has become miserable for the vast majority of Palestinians. They too die on their way to work or school, hit by an Israeli helicopter rocket as the "collateral damage" of an assassination, hit by shrapnel in their homes during gun battles in the streets outside between the Israeli army and militants, or hit by the live ammunition Israeli soldiers fire at Palestinian children throwing stones at their tanks.

Millions of Palestinians are trapped inside cities surrounded by the Israeli army, unable to move freely because of roadblocks. The Palestinian economy has collapsed and there is now serious child malnutrition in the occupied territories. Yet the Palestinians marching yesterday vowed to continue their armed resistance. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have rejected any new ceasefire - so, for that matter, has Israel.

Mr Arafat, far from being sidelined as the US and Israel hoped, is back in charge. The new Palestinian cabinet named yesterday was not chosen by the Prime Minister, Ahmad Qureia, popularly known as Abu Ala, but by the Fatah Central Committee, which is packed with Arafat loyalists. Yasser Abed Rabbo, an Arafat man sacked by Abu Mazen, was back, as was Saeb Erekat, an Arafat crony who resigned in May.

Mohammed Dahlan, the security minister who won US admiration, is out. The only surprise appointment was Nasser Yusuf for the all-important job of Interior Minister, in charge of security, which means clamping down on the militants. Despite reports describing General Yusuf as an Arafat loyalist, their relationship has been strained. Mr Arafat was said to have spat in General Yusuf's face at a recent meeting. General Yusuf was the first Palestinian Authority figure to crack down on Hamas, in 1995. But there is no sign the new government is any more willing to take on the militants than Abu Mazen was.